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27 November 2014

Letter from Kosovo: disarray in the heart of the Balkans

The small nation state has not had a government for six months and corruption and cynicism still rule.

By Melanie McDonagh

Kosovo has been without a government since the inconclusive general election six months ago; yet the remarkable thing is how little difference this has made. The other remarkable thing is that the foreigners who exercise real influence here – the Americans, but also the EU – have held off from telling local people what to do, though that is starting to change.

The constitutional crisis hasn’t dented the realities: rampant corruption, a broken economy, plus an unsettling new factor, the rise of Islamic extremism. Not a happy record, 15 years after Kosovo broke away from Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia and six years since independence.

The election left the previous ruling party, the PDK, with the most votes. It is led by Hashim Thaçi, a former head of the paramilitary Kosovo Liberation Army, often derided as a man from the villages who made good when the Americans made him their protégé after independence.

The PDK was outnumbered by a coalition of opposition parties, with another former army commander, Ramush Haradinaj, who leads the small AAK, emerging as their most likely prime ministerial candidate. Kosovo’s president, Atifete Jahjaga, was unable to resolve the impasse and referred it to the constitutional court. Now the US and British ambassadors are hinting that parliament should be reconvened; this could send Thaçi into opposition.

Jahjaga, Kosovo’s first female president, hasn’t come out of the crisis well but her standing was already compromised. When the US ambassador announced her appointment at a gathering of party leaders, no one had heard of her. But then, most people assumed the US and the EU would intervene. As Ardian Arifaj, Thaçi’s spokesman, told me: “Kosovars expect internationals to get involved . . . we interpret it as support and friendship.”

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The question is, whether a new government could change things. Unemployment stands at 40 per cent. Cynicism is the default mode. When the son of the Speaker of parliament beat up a couple of policemen earlier this year because they had stopped him for speeding, he wasn’t arrested, but it made a mordantly funny sketch by the satirical TV production company Stupcat.

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Corruption is rampant. A friend who works with an aid agency asked an official for help; she asked what was in it for her. “Lunch?” he volunteered. The privatisation programme, which began in 2002, is a scandal; it conspicuously benefited Thaçi’s friend Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist president: his son-in-law’s company won the electricity distribution contract for the knockdown price of €26m. The US company Bechtel has done rather well, too. As a result of its deal to build the nation’s roads, a kilometre of motorway costs way more in Kosovo than in France. As one insider observed, “I don’t mind Americans looking after their interests; I just wish we got a bit more out of it.” As for politicians, Arbana Xharra, editor-in-chief of the daily Zeri newspaper, says bluntly: “They have millions and only their salary. It’s so easy to read: they give government tenders to the companies that support them.”

Then there is Shik, a Mafia-style shadowy organisation, formerly the intelligence arm of the Kosovo Liberation Army, run by a deputy leader of the PDK. The US declared it defunct but Xharra says it is still powerful, using blackmail and manipulating contracts.

Naturally, the man who would be prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, wants change. “We have a derailed society,” he told me when we met at his offices in Pristina. Haradinaj is a physically active man, affable but tough-looking, which may be no bad thing. “We need to bring back a sense of direction and build a society that is based on the rule of law and the credibility of institutions. We should have a functioning state, a functioning society.” Trouble is, his party was found guilty of corruption in the local authorities it runs and a member of his party on the privatisation board was alleged to have taken bribes.

Haradinaj points out that this happened while he was at The Hague – where he faced, and was cleared of, war crimes. He argues that a change of government matters. “There’ll be change even if we don’t do as good as we think we will; we’ll disrupt the continuity.”

Eulex, the EU’s law-enforcement agency, oversees administration of law in Kosovo but this, too, is problematic. Eulex is being investigated by the EU for corruption and, more hair-raisingly, colluding in criminal activities (including assassinations) by Shik. Thaçi’s adviser Ardian Arifaj told me, “For the US, Kosovo is a success.” It makes you wonder: what does failure look like?